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Perspectives | Issue 11

Navigator’s folio of ideas, insights and new ways of thinking

Help Wanted

November 30, 2022
Adam Vaughan
Adam Vaughan | Principal

The housing crisis is about to hit home. For you. Not just for people renting or contemplating their first home purchase. No matter what your employment sector, if you work for or own a business, the real crisis underpinning our nationwide housing shortage is about to have serious implications for you. 

Governments and partisans of all stripes at the federal, provincial and municipal levels are desperate to increase the number of housing starts. Yet any discussion about construction planning needs to be rooted in an acknowledgment of where Canada’s most critical scarcity lies: labour.  

Everything from housing to pipelines to subways to hospitals requires skilled trades to get built. But when it comes to construction workers, Canada has a supply chain problem, and the solution is a work in progress. This slow pace could cost us all.  

A report released by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. over the summer indicates that the pool of construction workers available for work on a per unit basis is about half what it used to be a decade ago. In Ontario there are 3.8 workers on the job per unit of housing.  

In 1996 that number stood at 6.6. This isn’t a productivity gain; there just aren’t enough workers. 

It’s no surprise to anyone that we have an aging workforce, but two additional factors are driving the labour shortage. While everyone agrees we need more young people swinging a hammer or operating a crane, three out of four students say they would never pursue a job in construction. Add to that the prediction that almost a million workers now on building sites will retire by the end of the decade and it’s clear it will soon be difficult to find a hard hat on the job. 

The second factor is immigration. Canada’s points system discredits skilled trades from coming to our country. While immigrants make up 20 per cent of our workforce, only 8.7 per cent of apprentices currently enrolled in upgrading their skills are drawn from this pool. In other words, we aren’t attracting tradespeople fast enough to replace the workforce that’s aging out of the professions. 

Effectively, you need to be a post-secondary STEM graduate to enter Canada and people trained in STEM tend to become engineers and doctors, not carpenters. If you want someone who can wire a new building then the immigration points system needs to prioritize electricians, not electrical engineers.  

Even with an aggressive immigration policy, the failing of our current system is that it doesn’t target forecasted labour shortages. Instead, it’s driven by labour market failures. Canada is not proactively addressing its labour needs. Instead, it’s reacting to failure — and slowly at that.  

The current system is also making it harder to land new workers and train them to Canadian employment standards. Even when that happens, workers still need to upgrade their language skills. As stated, we have a supply chain problem.  

But there is a solution. It lies across the border. There has been a long-drawn-out culture war in the U.S. over immigration. The battle is often centred on a population of labourers known as undocumented workers. One side calls them illegal, while the other side calls them non-citizens.  

Ironically, when Donald Trump says “build the wall,” everyone chuckles because the reality is that the workers needed to construct the wall are more often than not the very people it is intended to keep out. Statistics show that one in 10 undocumented workers is employed in construction. If the U.S. doesn’t want them, Canada should recruit them.   

The provision of citizenship, union wages and security for their families — not to mention health care and a welcoming government — would make a good offer. These workers come with skills already integrated into modern construction technology, language capacity that’s better developed than most newcomers and a desire to work the second they clear customs.   

There are more than 10 million undocumented workers in the U.S. already on the journey toward a better tomorrow. Why not lead them north? It might just work. 

62% of Canadians agree the Canadian government should increase the number of skilled workers permitted to immigrate to Canada. 

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About the author:

Adam Vaughan
Adam Vaughan | Principal

Adam is a Principal at Navigator. He joined the team after serving over two terms in Parliament as an MP from Toronto. While in government he served as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister as well as the Parliamentary Secretary for Housing under the Ministers responsible for Families, Children and Social Development. Adam was one of the architects of the new National Housing Strategy and redesigned the federal approach to fighting homelessness and he led consultations and reported to cabinet on the development of a National Strategy for Urban, Rural and Northern Indigenous Housing.

Prior to federal politics Adam served two terms as a City Councillor in Toronto representing the downtown core. While on City Council he served on the Planning and Growth Committee and was member of the Police Services Board. Adam also Chaired the Civic Appointments Committee and served as the City’s representative on the Board of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Harbourfront Centre and Artscape.

For more than two decades Adam was a journalist working on-air as a political reporter with CBC, Citytv and CP24. He was also a producer at those organizations and was station manager for CKLN-FM in Toronto. He has written for several magazines and newspapers and is a published author. He began his career as a cartoonist and illustrator.

Adam is a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Toronto’s School for Cities and teaches and lectures on a variety of urban issues from transit and infrastructure to housing and architecture.

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